Unions Would Benefit From a Right-to-Work Law

(Editor's note: This is an edited version of a speech given by Paul Kersey, labor policy director, to the Labor and Employment Relations Association in East Lansing on Oct. 12, 2010.)

A lot of people in my family were active in the union movement back in the day. In fact, both of my grandfathers were UAW members. I'm told that one of them — I can't verify this but I doubt my aunts and uncles would lie to me about it — took his lumps at the Battle of the Overpass, during the struggle to organize at Ford. Growing up in and around Detroit as I did, I doubt my story is all that unusual.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

Grandpa Kersey died when I was still pretty young. I vaguely remember sitting on his lap when I was really small, but by all accounts he was a good man and a wise one, so I'm inclined to figure he had good reasons for supporting the union as fiercely as he did. I'm sure he was looking out for his family and his friends and in his situation and in his time he was probably doing the right thing by all of them.

But that was then and this is now. Times have changed. Michigan has changed. The economy has changed. The union movement has changed. And not for the better.

To explain why this is so, and to explain why we at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy support right-to-work legislation, I'd like to look at the state's two most powerful unions. One of the two has been waning for decades, the other has been growing more and more powerful. Both have acted recklessly. And both have benefitted from agency fee contracts that guarantee union officials access to multi-million dollar annual revenue streams with little or no accountability. I'm talking, of course, about the United Auto Workers and the National Education Association.

At bottom, the entire debate is about the agency fee, which is a particular clause in a collective bargaining agreement that is prohibited in right-to-work states and extremely common in Michigan and anywhere else they are allowed. The clause has many forms but the practical upshot of all of them is that any worker who is covered by the contract must either join the union formally and pay regular union dues, or, if a worker refuses to join, he or she still must pay an agency fee. Generally speaking, that agency fee will be the same amount as regular union dues.

On the surface this might seem fair; there's no question the union has real responsibilities and it needs resources and staff to meet them. It's certainly a great setup for union officials because they don't have to worry where they'll find the money to run their offices, the money gets transferred from the employer. One might think that arrangement frees union officials from money worries and allows them to focus on serving workers. But I would argue that the prevalence of the agency fee has corrupted and enervated the union movement to the detriment of all, including many unionized workers.

I assume many of you remember the old labor anthem "Solidarity Forever." It starts out, "When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run; there can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun." Now obviously I'm not the union man my grandfather was, but I have to say that's a pretty stirring vision. I mean, think about it, the union in your blood. That's powerful stuff. That's a song for a movement of workers who want to change their lives and those of their loved ones for the better and are willing to fight for it themselves. That's confidence, loyalty and courage. That's real solidarity. It comes from the heart.

Now I'd like to compare that with the Supreme Court's ruling in NLRB v. General Motors, which came down in 1963, and it had to do with how we treated agency fee payers — the men and women who are covered by a union contract but refuse to join and instead pay a fee to the union. The question was how to apply the federal labor law that governs agency fee clauses. The complicated thing was that one part of the law allowed employment to be conditioned upon "membership." Here's how the court squared the circle:

...the burdens of membership upon which employment may be conditioned are expressly limited to the payment of initiation fees and monthly dues. It is permissible to condition employment upon membership, but membership, insofar as it has significance to employment rights, may, in turn, be conditioned only upon payment of fees and dues. "Membership" as a condition of employment is whittled down to its financial core.

Now some of you might think this is a bit unfair, comparing a legal opinion with a great anthem of the labor movement, but "Solidarity Forever" and NLRB v. GM are both about the same thing: what does it mean to be a union member? And while you wouldn't necessarily expect a judge's opinion to be great poetry, I think it's fair to ask, how did union membership become, at its core, financial? Isn't it supposed to be in your blood? What happened to confidence, loyalty and courage? What happened to solidarity?

This isn't just a word game. The confidence that workers have, their commitment to the cause, has dropped incredibly. Think back to the days of the Battle of the Overpass, or better yet the great Sit-Down Strike. Those men physically took over a factory. The company had guards outside, and the workers' wives dodged those guards to smuggle food to the men inside. There were soldiers nearby and there was a very real chance they'd retake the plant by force.

Now this was a radical action, a blatant violation of GM's property rights, something that we would argue the UAW ultimately should not have gotten away with, but you have to give credit to the people who pulled it off. They had guts, and there's absolutely no doubt that these were men and women who believed in the cause; the union's inspiration was in their blood.

Nowadays, the union doesn't command anything like that kind of confidence among the men and women it supposedly represents. There really is no other way to interpret the campaign for card-check, the so-called Employee Free Choice Act. Instead of having a secret-ballot vote to decide whether or not a workplace will be unionized, the unions want to be able to collect cards and when they have enough that's it.

Now why do they need this change? If you look at the AFL-CIO's literature, it seems that what happens is workers sign these cards, but then they have to go to these meetings where employers tell them all kinds of disturbing things about what a union might or might not be able to do, and all of a sudden they lose enthusiasm, and when the time comes to vote they vote no.

Over the course of 80 years, all while drawing in millions of dollars in mandatory dues and agency fees, the union movement has gone from boldly storming workplaces to cringing in fear of how workers might respond to a stern lecture from the boss. I can't help but wonder what my grandfather would have thought about that.

When the union movement embraced the agency fee they traded real in-the-blood solidarity for money. If it's any comfort, they got a lot of money; even after losing more than two-thirds of its members from its peak in the 1970s, the national UAW took in $127 million in agency fees in 2009. That's not including dues that went to their locals, by the way. The national NEA — we'll get to them in a bit — took in $335 million during the 2008-09 school year.

That's a lot of money, and it buys union officials a lot of power. But I would argue that it's the wrong kind of power, because it doesn't really come from workers. The agency fee clause is in the contract between the union and the employer. It's the employer who agrees to agency fee, it's the employer who collects the funds and turns them over to the union. And then there's really very little accountability for how that money is used. Rather than fostering real solidarity, that sense of loyalty and confidence in the union cause, the agency fee needs nothing more from workers than acquiescence to a transfer of funds from employer to union, done in the employee's name.

When you have the wrong kind of power, odds are it'll be used the wrong way. When there's no real accountability to the people you are supposed to represent, it's easy to start substituting your judgment, your values, your politics. Our study of union financial reports shows that only half of union spending is really needed for representation. Much of the rest goes into politics, and that politics is overwhelmingly left of center. For decades the UAW has been almost exclusively a supporter of Democratic Party candidates, while its own membership has trended away from that party. The UAW has continued down that path while progressivism has moved toward ever stricter environmental and fuel consumption regulation that impedes the automobile industry and has done no favors to the traditional domestic companies that employ the bulk of its members. A UAW that really relied on its members would almost certainly be less political and more focused on the workplace. Its politics would have been more balanced and discerning. It would have cultivated more allies in both parties and even among conservatives. (Who happen to like cars, I should point out, even while much of the progressive movement wants to promote mass transit in place of automobiles.) It would have reacted more quickly to changes in the economy, to preserve jobs for its members.

Instead, a cadre of ideologues has hijacked the UAW and redirected it into political activism. The companies have lost market share and many of its members have lost their jobs while the union pursued unrealistic economic goals, saddling car companies with unsustainable work rules and benefit obligations. By detaching union officials from the day-to-day concerns of the workers they represent, the agency fee has contributed to all of this.

Of course, the UAW isn't the strongest union in the state any more. That title, in the opinion of most observers, has been claimed by the Michigan Education Association, which holds sway over public schools. And it has used its power in ways that are, if anything, even more damaging.

A couple of days ago I saw a documentary on public education called "Waiting for Superman," which was put together by Davis Guggenheim. Now Guggenheim is neither a conservative nor a libertarian, he was the Director of Al Gore's environmentalist film "An Inconvenient Truth."

The title is really an odd one when you think about it — what does Superman have to do with schools? But it makes more sense when you look at it this way: in comic books, why is that people cry out for a superhero? Most of the time, it's because there's a supervillain wreaking havoc. In education, the teachers unions are the supervillains.

Again, there's the money, $65 million annually just for NEA's Michigan affiliate, the Michigan Education Association. That money is effectively handed over by employers. Since the employers are units of government, that means that MEA is essentially funded by taxpayers. Financial reporting requirements for government employee unions in Michigan are even more lax — practically nonexistent for local unions, but our review of the paperwork reveals that MEA and NEA and its affiliated locals spend less than a third of their dues money representing public school employees.

And just as is the case with the UAW, NEA's efforts have been redirected into political activism, and once again, that politics is overwhelmingly to the left while NEA's membership is far more broad. In 2005 Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency managed to come across the results of an internal poll by the NEA of its members. The results were stark: NEA leaders do not represent their members well. Asked to self identify their political outlook, 50 percent of NEA members said they were conservative or tended towards conservative. By contrast, presidents of NEA locals were more likely to describe themselves as liberals and, as the locals become larger, the tilt to the left becomes more pronounced.  At the largest locals, more than 80 percent of local presidents describe themselves as liberal or leaning that way.

Again, the problem isn't simply that the union tilts too far to the left, but that the organization as a whole does not represent the views of its members. The inability of individual members to withhold their financial support has allowed a cadre of ideologues to hijack the union and use it for their own purposes. MEA's political power is particularly pernicious, because MEA is in a position to exert political influence over its own employers, concentrating get-out-the-vote drives, campaign workers, propaganda and campaign contributions in school board elections. A few years ago we stumbled across an internal MEA document titled "Electing Your Employer: It's as Easy as 1-2-3." It's a straightforward, step-by-step program for electing MEA supporters to school boards, covering basic research, candidate recruitment, building a campaign organization, and get-out-the-vote. The title is a bit of an exaggeration, accumulating that kind of power in a school district isn't quite as simple as that, but it's certainly a goal that MEA locals have and it's an achievable one when the district itself hands over thousands of dollars, no questions asked.

The effects of this disconnect for Michigan have been devastating in myriad ways. Promising education reforms like merit pay for quality teaching are smothered by union lobbyists or undermined in collective bargaining, or both. Firing a clearly inept teacher is nearly impossible - students waste time in classrooms as unqualified or unmotivated teachers look on. Illiteracy rates are close to 50 percent in Detroit, leaving much of that city's workforce nearly unemployable. School districts across the state have been pressured into buying needlessly expensive health care from the MEA's preferred provider, MESSA, costing state taxpayers $451 million annually while providing no concrete benefits to actual teachers. That's money that could be returned to taxpayers or reinvested in better equipment but instead goes to a union-controlled health insurance administrator.

Making matters worse is that the union movement is increasingly a movement of government employees. Unlike traditional private-sector unions representing workers at for-profit companies, government employees have little competition and relatively little risk of losing their jobs. That in turn means that government union officials, unlike their companions in the UAW, face much less risk that reckless decisions will result in losses of membership and dues income.

This is the union movement that the agency fee has created: union officials who are insulated from the concerns of the men and women that they represent, acting recklessly, damaging companies, hampering public schools. Whatever the union movement might have once been, whatever good it might have done, whatever it might have represented in the days of our grandfathers, what it is today is a destructive force in the state of Michigan.

And the terrible irony is that, while they do all this in the name of the workers, the union movement is itself alienated from actual workers. It lost their confidence years ago. In 2004 a Zogby survey of union members found that fewer than half of union members agreed with the statement that their union dues were spent mainly on helping workers get better pay, benefits and working conditions. The rest said that union dues were spent on politics or big salaries and perks for union officials, or they just didn't know where their money went.

A solid majority, 63 percent, said they thought it was unfair for a worker to lose his or her job because he or she refused to pay dues to or otherwise support a union. Whether they realized it or not, they wound up supporting the basic principle behind right-to-work. Do away with agency fees. Let workers decide whether or not the union needs or deserves their support. If you really value workers, if you really trust their judgment, you won't hesitate to let them make that call.

My grandfather was a union man. I'm willing to bet if he were alive today we'd have some pretty tough arguments, but I can't bring myself to dismiss the man as a fool. I'm pretty sure this is a common sentiment in this state. Let's keep one thing straight: workers should have the option of joining a union, of getting smart, tough representation in the workplace, of joining together with their coworkers to present a united front to management if needed.

But that union movement needs to be accountable. It cannot be shielded from the consequences of reckless actions. That's how you turn unions into a destructive force.

The union movement needs to be a workers movement, one that really answers to workers themselves, one that respects workers' views and focuses on their real-world interests, not a tool for ideologues of left or right for that matter. Our goal ought to be a union movement of, by, and for workers. A movement that brings forth genuine trust, loyalty, and courage among working men and women. One that inspires real solidarity.

If we are going to have that movement, then we need a union movement that depends on workers themselves for support, whether it be in calling for a strike or asking for dues.

And that's why the labor union movement itself needs right-to-work.


Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.